Tone Empire’s OptoRED: Not Your Typical Optical Compressor

Optored by Tone Empire

Before we jump into the OptoRED, let’s discuss what compression is at its core and how it works so you have a better understanding of what makes OptoRED unique and how it can be of value to you.

Tone Empire OptoRED Compressor

Compression… For What?

For the sake of simplicity, take into consideration how it sounds when having a normal conversation with a friend. Speaking volumes are always fluctuating, especially when emphasizing words, expressing excitement, or lowering your voice so others won’t overhear you. This is natural and not a big deal as the listener can adjust their proximity or cue the source to speak up and or repeat themselves.

Picture the same scenario with respect to recording vocals and instrument performances where articulations, phrases, and inflections vary. Yes, this is natural-sounding but when creating professional music, you want levels to be fairly consistent. You can’t expect the listener to ride their volume control while listening to your music.

How To Tame Audio Fluctuations

To Fix fluctuating audio, we use a dynamic processor called a Compressor. A Compressor’s job is to decrease the gap between loud and quieter parts of the audio making them sound closer in volume. This is known as reducing the dynamic range.

Different Types Of Compressors

Now that you understand a compressor’s basic function, let’s dive in a little deeper. Let’s talk about FET, VCA, Opto, and Vari-Mu. These are different types of compressors that handle compression differently making them useful for different applications. Some compressors are good for vocals, while others are better for faster transient information, such as drums and percussion.

Compressor Families and Their Usages

FET: FET Compressors add good character and punch, they’re fast-acting to transients making them favored on drums and percussion. The faster they hit, the more distortion (color) gets introduced to the sound. The most famous compressor in this group is the 1176.

Vari-Mu: Another Tube Type of Compressor with great gluing capabilities. They’re easy to dial in and work well on buss channels/groups. The most iconic Vari-Mu is the Fairchild 670. Tone Empire has an emulation called the Fairchild, definitely check it out.

Opto: Opto is short for Optical. These tube compressors have pre-set (non-adjustable) slow attack and release times, making them less aggressive than FETs. They’re ideal for non-percussive sounds such as vocals, synths, and bass. Engineers use Opto compressors when they want to smoothen out sounds and or add some color/flavor to the mix. One of the most notable Opto Compressors is the LA-2A.

VCA: Voltage Control Amplifiers are the style of compressor most people are talking about when they mention GLUE Compression. They’re known for being precise and predictable in their sound character and can be aggressive if pushed hard. A few popular VCA compressors are the SSL 4000 G Buss, Shadow Hills Mastering Comp, and the API 2500.

Diving Into Tone Empire’s OptoRED

The OptoRED, unlike most compressor emulations, sits vertically like a 500 series rack. Given the first half of its name being ‘Opto,’ it’s clear that Tone Empire’s emulation is an optical compressor.

OptoRED is a transparent Optical Attenuator (compressor) based on the classic American unit used on countless hit records. This is part of our new “Enhanced Classics” series – Tone Empire

That sounds like it was styled after the LA2A.

OptoRED Features: Why They’re useful

Compress: One knob dial allows you to focus on and control the amount of compression.

Makeup Gain: A simple control that allows you to increase the overall volume (re-level) of your signal after compression.

Autogain: Automatically compensates for the reduction of overall volume after compression. This allows you to hear exactly what the compressor is doing vs tricking yourself by using makeup gain (too loud).

LCF: Also known as Low Cut Filter, allows the user to track without the low-end. This is typically seen in recording studios where the engineer has run an LCF on the channel strip, compressor, and or signal chain.

Sidechain: Filtered sidechain section that can be set to make the compressor ignore frequencies from 20hz to 200hz. This is ideal for preserving kicks, bass, and other instruments with bass elements.

Wet/Dry: The ability to dial in the amount of process and non-processed signal, parallel processing if you will.

Comp/Limit: Toggle between compression (fair comp amount) and limiting or heavy compression (10:1-20:1)

Quick Tip: 100% means DRY, not WET

How OptoRED Sounds

How OptoRED Differs From Other Opto Compressors

Super long release: Slower release times help aid smoothness in overall compression. This can sound ’round’ on synths, basses, vocals, and even drums/percussion in terms of sound and characteristics.

Little Tip: The Release parameter helps give off that glue-ish people rave, and it’s great on the master bus.

Transparent: Meaning it adds no coloration (or very little) to the sound. Music producers and engineers enjoyed the original LA-2A because of its color, tone, and how much it could be pushed.

Pros and cons of transparency.

  • The Good Of Being Transparent: If you already have a good color and tone you enjoy but you just want the compression style of the LA-2A then transparent plays in your favor as your original sound will not be altered.
  • The Not So Good Of Being Transparent: Lack of color! When I grab an Opto compressor, I’m looking for the color baby! In all fairness, transparent is what Tone Empire was shooting for here and they’ve nailed it.

OptoRED Production Tips

Leveling/Preamp: OptoRED offers 24db of input and output, that’s a total of 48 dB of gain. With that being said, you can use this compressor to dial in levels or really drive the sound.

Character: I like to use an Opto on every channel, yes, even my drums for adding body/roundness to them. If transients need to be tamed, I’ll use an 1176 or Loc-Ness followed by an Opto Compressor.

Serial Compression: I like to run 2-3 of these units on a bus, each with different levels of compression and filtering. This not only stops one from overloading a single compressor but helps the compression sound more natural.

Final Thoughts

Tone Empire has done a really good job with this compressor. It’s lightweight and sounds good, not to mention it has autogain and the ability to let the drums cut through. I would like to see it expanded a bit with attack & release controls thus adding even more flexibility for the user.


About Author: Greg Savage is a music composer/sound designer with 20+ years of music licensing experience. For information on the music business and mentoring please visit

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